Peru is on a par with Colombia to become one of the world’s largest producers of coca, the plant used to make cocaine, a new UN report said on Thursday.
The report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said Peru had 61,200 hectares (150,000 acres) of coca cultivated last year, 2 percent more than in the previous year, when there were about 59,900 hectares planted.
Colombia, meanwhile, saw a significant reduction in the amount of land cultivated with coca plants, from 68,000 hectares to 57,000, although when small holdings were taken into account, it retained its top spot.
The bad news confirms a report issued by the Lima government in 2009, which found that Peru overtook Colombia as the world’s top producer of coca leaf in 2009.
“Coca cultivation has been expanding for a decade, as successive governments have not appeared to have decided to curb it,” drugs and security expert Ruben Vargas said.
The latest UN report does not mention a figure of Peru’s cocaine production, but on Thursday the country’s drug czar, Romulo Pizarro, told reporters that the estimate for last year was 330 tonnes, close to the estimated 350 tonnes produced by Colombia.
However, Peru had seized just 30 tonnes of cocaine last year, the official said, compared with 100 tonnes in Colombia.
In economic terms, the coca and cocaine trade is worth between US$2 billion and US$2.5 billion, Pizarro said.
Peruvian troops have been struggling to contain production in the country’s eastern valleys, where 4,000 soldiers and police have been tracking hundreds of so-called “narco-terrorists” connected to the Shining Path insurgency group.
They have struggled to police areas outside of major cities, however, as the drug traffickers have found refuge in the thick tropical jungles and steep hills, military Chief of Staff General Luis Howell said.
Meanwhile, score-settling and murders have risen on a small scale in Pacific port cities, which transport most of Peru’s cocaine, provoking alarm in the media over the influence of Mexican and Colombian cartels.
Outgoing Peruvian President Alan Garcia complained last year about the small amount of anti-drug aid Peru received from the US compared to Colombia.
“I once told [US] President [Barack] Obama: ‘It’s your fault because you’ve put all the money into Colombia,’” Garcia said, referring to the Plan Colombia, a US$6 billion anti-drug effort in place since 2000.
Others have said an all-out war on the drug would only make matters worse.
Hugo Cabieses, an economist and adviser to Peruvian president-elect Ollanta Humala, said the key was to “not see trafficking as a security problem, as a war. This gets in the way of thinking about a comprehensive policy.”
Humala has said he favors a policy of “damage control” and will create a central authority to coordinate strategy against drugs, which is now the province of the defense, interior and financial authorities.
However, that has raised eyebrows among Humala’s political opponents because of the well-known links between his leftwing nationalist party and the coca growers. The plant is legal for traditional chewing.
Humala must also weigh any decision to step up military force against traffickers with the possible consequences.